2017 December Issue
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Sermon Ideas For 2 Samuel 7:1-16 Part 3

The story of David, interwoven with the story of Saul, the story of the ark, and the story of the succession, extends from 1 Samuel 16 —1 Kings 2. It carries David from his shepherd youth through several "careers": military hero, court poet, guerilla, politician, vital and aging and finally dying king. The David of the story before us this Sunday is no longer the innocent, golden-haired child of Veronese's Anointing,1 the slender boy of Donatello's famous statue, or the bold youth of Michelangelo's. He is not the player on the harp, the maker of psalms, of many a Sunday School print. He is all these, but he has become more. He has married (and will again). He has mourned Saul and Jonathan. He has become king of Israel and Judah. He has brought the ark to Jerusalem and consolidated his power in that city.

He is settled there and wishes to settle the Lord there as well. He is at the height of his power. Perhaps he is for the moment the David of Claus Sluter's elegant statue in the Charterhouse at Champmol, near Dijon (ca. 1400). He stands straight and tall and greater than life-size. He is king, wearing his crown and his rich robe (embroidered with harps) calmly and well. His face is so calm in Sluter's statue as to be unreadable. What is this David thinking?

We know from the story to come (ably and hilariously retold in Joseph Heller's novel, God Knows) that all his thoughts are not elevated, all his motives are not pure.2 Too soon he will become the David who seduces Bathsheba and murders Uriah the Hittite, the patriarch of a family whose feuds will undermine his carefully built kingdom. He will become the too elegant David of Rembrandt's The Reconciliation of David and Absalom, dressed in rich and heavy robes of green and gold, and outlined by the Jerusalem he has built, but with face aging and puffy (very likely a Rembrandt self-portrait) under an impossible turban. This is a David who has seen much and too much, who wishes to appear mighty even as he clearly wearies.

Perhaps he is the David of Jack Levine's insightful portrait.3 Levine is an American best known as a painter of protest and social comment, and particularly interested in the contrast between "professed ideals and brutal realities." Satire is not a frequent method in his numerous portraits of Old Testament figures, but Levine's King David wears uneasily the crown and the fur-collared robe of royalty. This David may still play the harp, but it is not now to soothe Saul; it is to soothe himself. And it soothes him little more than it did Saul. Levine's King David is human. If he was clean-shaven and beautiful once, he is no longer. (One is here reminded of Heller's active, opinionated, trouble-seeking David and his dislike of the Michelangelo statue: "He's got me beardless, without a hair on my face—and not only that, he's got me standing there in public stark naked, and uncircumcised! I never had time like his David did to stand around all day for centuries doing nothing, with just a sling on my shoulders and no clothes on, not even a loincloth to hide my nakedness, just waiting for something interesting to show up." Heller's David likes the Donatello statue even less but, he says, "at least they've got that one off the beaten track in the Bargello, where no one important ever goes" [p. 177].) Levine's David is bearded and troubled by the trouble he has made. There is something venal about this melancholy man, with one eye higher than the other, something corruptible and already in a state of corruption.

The story in Samuel 7 is at least in part about this David, a man of highly mixed motives. Why does he wish to build God a house? Is it to God's glory, or is it to David's own advantage? Perhaps now he is settled in his, that is in David's city, he wants God to be settled in his, that is in David's city. He has brought the ark to Jerusalem. Can he not build a home for it there? If that is so, David's ambition for his city comes up against God's desire for freedom. "Have I ever asked any of the leaders of my people, `Why did you not build me a house?'" God asks. Neither is David to build God a house. God will build David a house.

The passage is also an opportunity for us to consider our mixed motives in building houses for God. The great French Gothic cathedrals have long been considered magnificent gestures of faith. Indeed they were, but it is increasingly clear that they were built not only to praise Christ and the Virgin but to glorify the cities that built them. These admittedly beautiful combinations of "faith and intelligence, [of] a profound trust in divinity and a noble humanism," are also "sweet flowers grown miraculously out of [dunghills]" of mud and slime, poverty and plague. Sheldon Cheney suggests that they can only be understood if we look to "a middle view," acknowledging both that the builders struggled to express their faith beautifully and that they achieved beauty "for limited classes of privileged citizens," while closing eyes to the miseries of most.4

Why does David wish to build a house for God? We do not know. We do know that God refused him, promising instead to build a house for David. And we know that the promise, of an everlasting house, is fulfilled in no building, however glorious, only in Jesus Christ our Savior.

Richard S. Dietrich

Notes

1. Paolo Veronese's The Anointing of David (ca. 1554) is reproduced in color in The Bible in Art: The Old Testament, introduction by Marcel Brion, descriptive notes by Heidi Heiman (New York, Phaidon Publishers, 1956). The book contains twenty-one reproductions of works of art associated with the David story. Included are photographs of the statues by Donatello, Michelangelo (both also reproduced in almost any art history one can pick up) and Claus Sluter. Also included is Rembrandt's The Reconciliation of David and Absalom. There is a color reproduction of the Rembrandt painting in Gerson's Rembrandt Paintings, opposite page 80.

2. Joseph Heller's God Knows was published in 1984 by Alfred Knopf. Don't read this book if you like to take David seriously.

3. Jack Levine's King David is reproduced in Dillenberger, plate 164. The quotation is from the article on Levine in The Britannica of American Art (New York: Simon and Schuster), p. 343.

4. There is a fine brief discussion of Gothic architecture in its social milieu in Cheney, pp. 295-310. The quotations are from pp. 300-301.